Background to Roundtable Discussions
In April 2012, Australia21 published the report of a roundtable discussion that had taken place between former senior politicians, law enforcement, public health and drug policy experts and young people in January 2012.
This report was entitled, The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen. It echoed the conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011), which declared the long-standing ‘war on drugs’ a failure, and recommended that all countries should reconsider their drug policy.
Since the release of the first Australia21 report in April, the current approach to drugs has been vigorously debated in the media. There have been few defenders of existing policy. In July 2012, a second roundtable of experts met to discuss what Australia could learn from the different approaches being taken to drugs in Europe, especially by the authorities in Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. These different approaches have been operating long enough for their impacts to be evaluated.
A Discussion Paper is Commissioned
To lay the groundwork for the July 2012 meeting, Australia21 commissioned Drs Caitlin Hughes and Alex Wodak to prepare a Discussion Paper.
Dr Hughes is a drug policy researcher at the University of New South Wales with a particular interest in the study of innovations in Portugal. Dr Wodak is a clinician with a long-standing involvement in national and international policy on illicit drugs. The 20-page paper traced policies in the above-mentioned countries as well as providing comparative data to evaluate their impacts on drug use and drug harm.
Discussion Paper Conclusions
Hughes and Wodak demonstrated that a broad range of evidence to assess policy and consider law reform is now available compared to what was the case some years earlier. It used to be said that whilst the focus on reducing drug supply was not very effective, there were no other models to consider. Nowadays, however, a number of alternative models have been documented. Furthermore, there is now a growing body of evaluative data about the pros and cons of alternative ways of dealing with the problems resulting from psychoactive drugs and
drug dependence. Significantly, the approaches in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal, more reliant on health and social measures than on the criminal justice system, are associated with a reduction in drug overdose deaths, HIV infection and crime. Conversely, Sweden’s more punitive approach has been accompanied high drug related deaths in comparison to other European countries and an apparent increase in problematic drug use. Meanwhile, over the past 15 years successive Australian governments have relied increasingly on efforts to cut supplies of illicit drugs, with little evidence of success.
Wodak and Hughes conclude that more punitive approaches to drug use do not inevitably result in reduced consumption, and that more liberal approaches do not necessarily lead to
Obtaining Reliable Data
Due to the stigma and illegality of drug use it is difficult to obtain reliable data on drug consumption and its impact. The Discussion Paper used statistics that have been broadly
validated for use in tracking progress in national and international drug policy and for making comparisons across international borders. These data are of varying quality but they are the best we have. Comparison over time within one nation that uses good and consistent data
systems, combined with rigorous trial methodology, is the best way to evaluate innovations. This is because there are always difficulties with international comparisons and huge variability in the quality of drug data collections across nations. Australian data on these matters is
of generally high quality. One of the difficulties in this field is the extent to which arguments about policy are built on moral or ideological grounds, rather than on statistical evidence. Advocates often ‘cherry-pick’ from available variable quality statistical evidence to support their particular view. This occurs on both sides of the debate. Australian research capacity in the illicit drug field is now very substantial. Once there is bipartisan agreement about the specific aims of Australia’s future illicit drug approach it will be possible to build a dynamic database
that can measure progress in future policy development on this topic. Indeed, doing so was recommended as long ago as 1989 when a Commonwealth parliamentary committee published its opinion that a National Drug Information Centre should be established to track the impacts of drug policy. It recommended that, if drug availability and drug-related harms did not fall, governments should adopt different policies, ones that were likely to be more effective.